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Home » 2010 - Issue 1, Featured Article, In the Wild, Issue

10 Years of Saving the Yellow-eared Parrot

By Gilly Lloyd
With thanks to Paul Salaman of Fundación ProAves and David Waugh of Fundacióon Loro Parque for their input


One of South America’s most endangered parrot species is the beautiful Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis).  As its name suggests, this colourful parrot has large yellow ear-patches, contrasting dramatically with the rest of its primarily green plumage.

The Yellow-eared Parrot used to occur throughout the Andean mountains of Ecuador and Colombia - in the case of Colombia, in all three mountain chains. It was found in the wet montane forests of the upper subtropical and lower temperate zones, at altitudes ranging from 1,200 to 3,400 m above sea level. Once abundant in these regions, it is now classified by the World Conservation Union (IUCN)/BirdLife International as ‘Critically Endangered’.

The exact whereabouts of the species is unknown for much of the year, making protective measures difficult. Unlike other large Neotropical psittacid species, there are no known individuals presently in captivity, so a captive breeding or reintroduction programme is not an option.

Travelling in flocks, the species depends heavily on Colombia’s national tree, the Wax Palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), for its food and for nesting, and undertakes nomadic flights in search of fruit.  Colombian Christians have, however, traditionally used the fronds of the palm for Palm Sunday processions, resulting in extensive felling of the these trees.

Natural replacement has been affected by livestock grazing on young seedlings, and the extensive clearance of this habitat - together with hunting and trapping of the parrot - has resulted in the serious decline in the numbers of Yellow-eared Parrots.

In 1998, Fundación ProAves, with the support of the Fundación Loro Parque, initiated the Ognorhynchus Project, its main objective being to ensure the survival of the Yellow-eared Parrot and to protect its habitat in the Colombian Andes.  Danish ornithologist, Dr Neils Krabbe, undertook a research and conservation project for the last known flock in Ecuador, which had been discovered by Paul Salaman in the mid-1990s.  Despite his best efforts, however, they had disappeared - probably, it is thought, due to a combination of post-breeding dispersal and the scarcity of fruiting wax palms. The following year, however, researchers in Colombia re-discovered the species, finding a population of 81 birds in the Central Andes.

Over the 10 years since the Ognorhynchus Project was initiated, more than 180 people and 47 organizations worldwide have been involved in fulfilling the ambitions of ProAves and Loro Parque, dedicated to the purpose of ensuring that the populations of the Yellow-eared Parrot which have been found, are healthy and stable. The project has received the overwhelming support and cooperation of local communities in the study area, who are keen to assist in the protection of the species.

This combination of biological research, direct protection, habitat restoration and work with the local communities which ProAves has undertaken, has now paid off.  A dramatic increase in the population of the Yellow-eared Parrot has been recorded, and in 2009, ProAves was able to celebrate the first decade of the  Ognorhynchus Project with confirmation of a population well in excess of 1,000 birds, in the Central Andean departments of Tolima and Antioquia, with Caldas in between. With this expansion of the population, the field biologists have increasingly recorded birds at greater distances, up to 100 km, from their original localities.

More good news has also been delivered by Loro Parque Fundación in the past few weeks - a new population of Yellow-eared Parrots has been found in the department of Meta, by researchers from the Colombian Distrital University.  They conclude that between 100-120 individuals are distributed over about 500 hectares - the first to be seen on the eastern slopes of the Eastern Andes, and the only ones known in the Orinoco watershed.  Furthermore, it is a breeding colony, grouping into flocks of up to 60 parrots, although they are in a zone which is not considered appropriate for the species, being on the edge of the flatlands, and in a warmer climate - in contrast to conditions in Tolima and Antioquia.

Interestingly, although the species has always been associated with the Wax Palm, this new colony lives in a much less lofty, medium-height palm, the Andean Royal Palm (Dictyocaryum lamarckianum), which grows below 2,000m above sea level, within a forest of Cubarral - a municipality in Meta - and the second wettest place in Colombia. In their studies, the researchers have been supported by the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Special Management Area of La Macarena.

Evaluating the situation, the ProAves field team have suggested that these birds form a relict Eastern Cordillera population that has managed to survive by adapting. Because there are so few Wax Palms surviving in the highlands, the Yellow-eared Parrots are coming down to relatively low elevations (1200-1500m) to nest in the Andean Royal Palms on the edge of the Llanos.  The zone is very steep and relatively heavily forested, although it is gradually being cleared and is therefore at moderate risk. The parrots fly each day to higher elevations that are, however, less accessible.

ProAves has a good relationship with the landowners in this region, and with the support of Loro Parque Fundación, will continue to monitor the population, and plan other conservation actions at the site.

“We are now confident that future generations will know and cherish this dream and this species,” says Paul Salaman. “ProAves owes its birth and growth to the Yellow-eared Parrot and the support of Fundación Loro Parque.

“The Ognorhynchus Project is a conservation model that has also been replicated to other endangered species, and to the establishment of protected areas throughout Colombia.  Thanks to the support of Fundación Loro Parque, we can continue these activities and be one of the principal organizations working towards environmental conservation in the region.”

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